This issue’s shoptalkers: Rob Jesmer, a partner at the Republican firm FP1 Strategies and the former executive director of the NRSC; Emily Post, a political adviser at EMILY’s List and the political and field director at the DLCC during the 2012 cycle; Mitch Stewart, founding partner of 270 Strategies and battleground states director on Obama for America in 2012; Phillip Stutts, president of Phillip Stutts & Company and the national 72 Hour/GOTV director for George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004.
C&E: Looking back on the 2012 Obama turnout effort—just how precise were you able to be when it came to identifying and targeting your persuadable voters?
Mitch Stewart: We ended up being very precise. The proof point on that is that we continually tracked folks who had voted and measured that up against support scores for each individual so that the models we were using were updated and fresh. When states started reporting early voting numbers immediately on election night, we started seeing the proof of that. In Florida, our model was of by .7 percent. So when you have a state where almost half of the voting population votes before Election Day, it’s a pretty good indicator of how we’ll end up doing with the rest of the electorate. That was an invaluable resource and tool that we had to make sure that we better allocated resources as the electorate dwindled and we got closer to Election Day.
I think there was a lot of innovation in 2012, both on the Republican and Democratic side, but one of the most important developments was the aggressive nature of early vote. During the primaries on the Democratic side in 2008 we learned to take advantage of early voting. GOTV can’t just be a single Tuesday. One of the lessons we learned in 2010 with the enthusiasm gap we saw between Republicans and Democrats was that we were never able to recover from that narrative as Democrats. It was a factual narrative, but we weren’t able to recover. So last year we had a concerted effort very early on to make sure that we won early vote immediately, because we hoped it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
C&E: How much of what the Obama campaign did in certain targeted states actually helped Democrats down the ballot?
Jessica Post: In states where there were overlapping targets there were certainly some benefits. In a state like Wisconsin, we were able to combine GOTV efforts and use some of the Obama modeling and the other modeling the DNC placed on the voter file. In many ways, the addition of the models to VoteBuilder, and some of the specific tech tool enhancements, really boosted what we could do. In the past, it was much more difficult to refresh the turf list and refresh targets. Now, it’s a lot easier to pull out people who have voted, refine those models, and update those universes overnight. At the legislative level we benefited from the DNC’s growth in technology infrastructure.
Phillip Stutts: Did you find it easier to work through the party or through Super PACs and third party groups?
Post: It depends on the finance laws of the state. At the field level, it’s about having messaging. I think our third party groups in states were really good about carrying messaging. But the efficiencies that you gain when you’re able to coordinate with all actors in a state are great. When you’re talking about field mobilization, you can do the messaging through an IE, but you can’t just paper over the organizing you have to do on the ground. That has to be done through state parties and through organizing entities.
Stewart: One question I have for you guys on the Republican side…
Rob Jesmer: Just how shitty was it? (laughter)
Stewart: One of the advantages we certainly had was a voter file that all of the players used, so it was a great aggregator of data. That was a fight that we had within our party after 2004. There’s not a debate within the party now about who should have the file. You have Catalist on the non-electoral side and then you have the DNC file on the official side. There seem to be a couple of different entities popping up on the Republican side and trying to be the breadwinner when it comes to data right now. How is that playing out?
Stutts: I remember being in the war room in 2004 and Ken Mehlman was asking, “Where are we going in the future?” The model we had used was through the party and the campaign. We won so the thinking was that maybe the party structure was the way to go in the future, but then other groups came in and everyone saw what Obama was able to do and it sort of shook up the entire system. I don’t know that we ever defined what the best way to do this is, and I’m not sure the party is the only way to go. All these offshoots have come out and I think the competition has been good.
C&E: There seems to be less of a willingness on the Republican side to unite around one particular entity when it comes to data.
Stutts: Well, Rob’s been in the structure recently enough that he might have a reason for that.
Jesmer: Yes, but I’m very happy to be out of it. Look, I think it’s always better to have the party be the central player in this stuff. They are uniquely equipped and it’s just helpful for them to be taking the lead. The legality of working with third parties makes this more challenging. You can have competition and then the RNC can pick one or two of these companies or entities and provide the data. I think that’s the way it has to go for the party long-term. I also think there’s enough will on the party side to get this together and try to fix the problem. We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m somewhat optimistic that the national party will get this figured out and lead the way. It’ll probably not totally get itself worked out until we have a nominee three years from now, though. That person is going to come in and they’re going to dictate the way things happen, much like the Obama campaign did in 2008. Until that happens, it’s going to be a little dicey.
Stutts: I think that’s exactly right. The nominee and whatever team that person puts together will control the power structure. That’s the nice thing we had with the Bush administration, and that’s the great thing the Obama team had. Everybody knows where the authority comes from. And to echo what Rob said, it’s going to be the Wild West of competition to see who shakes out within the party. If our nominee ends up winning, maybe we’ll see the reverse of what we see now. We saw this after John Kerry lost in 2004. We had the vaunted turnout machine—the greatest turnout machine in the world. Well, they reversed it in one presidential cycle.
Stewart: I was [former Sen.] Tom Daschle’s [D-S.D.] field director in 2004 and we exceeded what we thought was a reasonable turnout expectation in getting to 51 percent. Obviously we fell short, and we heard a lot about the 72 hour plan and about Voter Vault. Is that something that’s still used on the Republican side?
Jesmer: Voter Vault is still used nominally, but it’s antiquated and it’s certainly not the future. A lot of what I worry about for our party is that people look at 2012 and think it was a tools problem. There’s no question about it—we’re behind on that, but I often ask people to assume that Gov. Romney’s campaign had the same exact tools and the same fundraising capacity Obama did. If that were true, and it came down to the better candidate, does anyone believe Gov. Romney would have won? Most people in my party believe that he still would have lost. You can have the best GOTV plan and the best tools in the world, but you still need a compelling messenger to go along with that. It still is a message delivery mechanism and the messenger matters. Our party does not just have a tools problem.
Post: There’s one thing that has always confused me about the Republican side. On the Democratic side, it’s not just our data, it’s also about the manpower and the personnel we have on the ground to collect the data, knock on the doors, and get info to put back in the voter file. I would see reports where Romney had seven staffers in Iowa. How do you build an organization that will collect enough data to enhance these files without having the staff you need on the ground?
Stutts: I will say this about the Obama campaign: from the first campaign to the end of the second campaign, they had about a five-year data collection and implementation process. In Romney’s defense, he had about nine months after he won the nomination. It’s hard to compete against a four-and- a-half year head start. I was out on the ground in South Dakota in 2002; we were doing test cases in Virginia in 2001. We were well ahead of John Kerry and where they were way back in the day.
Jesmer: I also think the jury is still out on whether this is just totally about President Obama or whether it is really transferable to other Democrats. Obama ran a great campaign in 2008, but it didn’t help them in 2010. So it’s an open question as to whether or not that’s transferable.
Stutts: Democrats have been able to turn out voters in presidential elections with Obama, but maybe not on issue campaigns.
Post: One thing that I think is really important on the legislative side is that we now have a generation of organizers that have been trained on data collection, and a generation of organizers that have been trained on GOTV and best practices. So the question is whether they can take what they learned on the Obama campaign and can that trickle down to the state legislative level? We tried to train all the organizers uniformly. Can those people take what they learned and then create that wheel themselves? Stewart: And I think having the same sort of volunteer excitement, at least in the last two presidential cycles, was potentially unique to President Obama. The optimization, the analytics, and the data that was applied are universal.
Things like making sure your script encompasses best practices so that you see a two or three percentage point bump in donations based on simply tweaking where you put the ask in an email; making sure you match behavior with voting type so if someone voted early in 2008 you’re hitting them with an early vote message. All of those are universal and will be applicable to future candidates. As far as issue advocacy, it’s a much more challenging ask. I call it a quiver of arrows, and it is part of the challenge that we have at OFA. You don’t know exactly what is going to make the member change his or her mind or come out in support of your position. So you try to do earned media and some direct contact; you try as many creative tactics as possible to help amplify your message and create pressure. But it’s not a straight line like getting to 51 percent in a state.
C&E: As it gets tougher to reach voters by some more traditional means like TV and phones, are you finding similar challenges when it comes to GOTV?
Stutts: You try to throw 100 arrows at the bullseye—that may be digital, mail, TV, or phones. Ten years ago you could drop a mail piece, hope they saw a TV ad, and make some phone calls, but there are 10 other arrows we now have. Early voting has changed everything, as has the ability to do all of this very quickly.
Stewart: Our general premise was the best person, both message and messenger, matters. At least from a grassroots perspective we were trying to facilitate friends talking to friends, neighbors talking to neighbors. But basically having that messenger deliver whatever the ask is. And that could either happen online or offline. Since contact rates continue to go down, one of the things we tried to do is have that person use their Facebook network and have that person be the messenger. By using some of the data analytics on the back end, we could make sure we were targeting the right people with the right message based on who their friends were or where they lived. But the messenger was someone who had a preexisting relationship with that voter.
Post: We’ve gotten smarter about messaging and giving people something to vote for. But I think our voter contact has gotten more efficient in a lot of ways because of the enhancements to voter data. If we walk a block in Minneapolis, we know which people have moved because we’ve knocked that door. If any other campaign in the state has knocked that door, we have that data, too. We at least are trying to make the most of the volunteer’s time when they go out and knock on that door.
Stewart: One example of optimization would be in Virginia. The phone rates there are just brutal. When I was the state director [for Obama] in 2008, we started off at a 13 percent contact rate. It was even lower in 2012. To optimize the volunteer’s time we actually ran a contactability model. We wanted to know who would be the most likely to answer the phone if we called. And then within your existing universe of voters we could rank order who would be the most likely to answer. That way the volunteer could have the best experience, and be the most efficient with their time. I think the next iteration of that is that you’ll have the folks making research decisions asking a lot more questions like that. If you can’t hold someone at the door or on the phone, does that mean you retarget for mail? Do you spend more money trying to engage that person on a digital platform? It’s going to be interesting, because it’s harder and harder to get people on the phone.
C&E: Looking at Obama in 2012 in terms of turnout, are there any similarities to Bush in 2004?
Stutts: There were similarities in the sense that both of the teams were innovative, but other than that not really. I go back to what Mitch was talking about in terms of efficiency. When it comes to volunteers, it’s so hard to use them in an efficient manner and they have jobs and families. They want to give their time very quickly and then move on. How can we achieve that? I don’t think we’ve mastered that quite yet; I’m sort of obsessed with figuring that out. Obama’s folks did a very good job of efficiently using the time of their volunteers so that they felt valued. From my standpoint, that’s one of the big lessons we have to learn.
C&E: And as you get further down the ballot that becomes even more important.
Post: Absolutely. It was one of the things we would think about when I was at the [Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee]. When you look at chambers like the New Mexico House or the Montana House, you can win a state legislative seat by 900 votes in the off-year. You can win some of these seats for fewer votes than you won your student council election in high school. So personal contact becomes very important. I think for a long time we had moved away from that. We just thought we could blast out the media market in Billings and put a bunch of stuff on TV. The more we’ve thought about how to efficiently reach those individual voters, the more we decided to invest in field. We can get those 900 votes by door-knocking, direct mail, and a good combination of all of these tactics.
C&E: Does the party structure on the right have to pick a winner in the data sweepstakes?
Stutts: For 2016 it will be whoever the nominee is. They’ll use their vendor and claim that it’s the next generation. It will be merged with whatever the RNC is doing, and I think they’re doing a pretty good job of trying to change the culture.
Jesmer: I think the RNC is going to pick the winner, especially for down-ballot races and for the people that don’t have the money to do these things. There’s also a question of what you do with the data once you have it. Do our campaigns have the financial capacity to use the data that’s given to them? It’s one thing if you have $25 million in a governor’s race or in a Senate race, but what if you’re a congressional race and have $100,000 in a primary? Are you going to mail 14 different segments of people? There is a scalability on this stuff. The smaller the campaign, the harder it is to use some of it.
Stewart: One of the advantages we have is the Analyst Institute. They did a lot of this academic research, and it was iterative. So the lessons that we learned in 2008 were applied to specials and midterms in 2010, and then we tried to share that with candidates and campaigns. We then take those lessons and try to refine them even more. So we did have an outside group that was really the catalyst.
Jesmer: But part of that is what we were talking about earlier. When President Bush was in office, everyone knew who the boss was and it was very easy to get these things done. When you don’t control the White House, it’s harder to have the iron fist and dictate the direction.
Post: The scalability point is really an important one, because here’s something people ask a lot: “That’s great for the Obama campaign, but can we really do that at the state legislative level?” I think it’s true that it’s more difficult to do statistical tests at the state level, because you just don’t have the same kind of statistical power, but the great thing about having our research in a third party group is that we were able to make use of that at the DLCC. There wasn’t the DNC’s iron fist telling us how to target our direct mail. It was much more about teaching and working with these individual legislative caucuses. We could say to the Ohio House caucus, for example, “I understand that your mail universes are 17,000 households. If you can get them to 16,000 you’ll save $350,000 and then you can put that money on television.” So there are ways to use all of this knowledge, but you have to be a teacher and an evangelist to get that done.
Jesmer: There’s also a tremendous amount of donor backlash right now in our party, as one could imagine. You have a lot of people saying we have to spend more money on digital. I agree with that, but don’t forget that we were also vastly outspent on television. There has yet to be a campaign that I know of that’s willing to be outspent on TV in order to go and put that money online or in the field. We were outspent in lots of different categories. My point is that this stuff is complicated. It’s not easily solved, and it’s not like you can just pour more money into one single thing to solve a problem.
C&E: Do you actually trust the RNC to lead on digital?
Stutts: I do now. I think they’re moving in the right direction. It’s not like we didn’t trust them a few years ago. It’s what we had. But all things being equal, it’s going to come down to message. If you face someone who has a vastly better message, it doesn’t matter what tools you have.
Stewart: I think the point for folks on my side is that we were ahead in 2008 and 2012. The data and analytics that went into those winning campaigns proved that we were ahead. But the life cycle of a campaign is so short that it’s really easy for the other side to catch up and then surpass us. When you look at what happened between 2004 and 2008, Democrats have to realize it could happen to us if we’re not vigilant. We have to keep moving forward and maintain the advantage we have. It’s one of the biggest conversations we’re having right now: how do we make sure that we keep this advantage? It’s a gigantic fear that we have. We don’t want to lose that edge.
C&E: Do you get to a point where you have 99 percent certainty about who your voters are and exactly how to reach them?
Stewart: The short answer is yes. The question of who has been answered. The how is still something we’re trying to figure out. If you have a dollar to spend, how do you spend that dollar most efficiently to get the most out of what you have? Is it better through TV, field or digital? So there’s still a huge amount of room for growth in figuring this out. One of the experiments the campaign ran was a persuasion experiment. For example, you oftentimes ask an undecided voter who they plan on supporting. If they say they don’t know yet, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re persuadable. It could mean that they’ve made up their mind and just don’t want to tell you. It could also mean they just don’t know. So we wanted to find out who was truly persuadable.
We were able to find 10 percent advantages based off 100 conversations. So for every 100 conversations you had with somebody, you would get 10 new votes. We also learned that there was a negative impact from some of the conversations we had. For every 100 conversations, we might actually lose three or four votes. That was another big advancement, but the how is clearly where there’s still room for growth and coming up with individualized treatments for specific voters. Knowing exactly what TV shows you watch and making sure the commercials you see reflect what is the most efficient way for you to vote or volunteer.
C&E: Take me through a typical Election Day. What should the field team be doing to start the day?
Stewart: The higher up in the ivory tower you get, the further away you are from where the real stuff happens. In South Dakota and Minnesota, for example, you’d have a phone tree and you’d pay to have a robo for all your staff to wake them up at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. Then you’d shift out throughout that day about three or four different voter contact sheets. You want to have a presence in the morning, and you want to start knocking on doors and making phone calls as soon as it’s appropriate given the time. And then you want to have people at the polling locations—making sure that there are no voting issues and if you can strike voters of a list early in the day, they can do that so that if you make phone calls later in the afternoon, you’re not reaching out to people who have already voted. At least for us, you keep running a merry-go-round.
Jesmer: It’s blocking and tackling. There’s nothing really magical about it. In fact, it’s pretty horrible.
Stutts: I always say this, on Election Day write every crazy rumor you hear all day, put them in a box and when you look at them in 90 days you’ll laugh about everything.
Stewart: Our joke was always to say we were encouraged by turnout. No one really knew what that meant.
Stutts: I would almost think about this the other way—how about what not to do on Election Day? I don’t know anything about ORCA, but in 2004 we had some kind of PalmPilot that we could track turnout on—remember this was 2004. We were in the war room of the Bush campaign and I’m monitoring Oregon and some other states. Everyone is asking, “Who’s turning out? We don’t know?” The whole thing was a colossal waste of time. It was just to keep the people in the office happy when they thought something was happening. So I don’t know what happened with ORCA, but if you’re going to put systems in place to monitor or track Election Day, make damn sure they work.
Jesmer: Election Day is becoming less and less relevant. There are so many people voting early now. I just don’t think we’re that far off from the point at which Election Day is just the day the store closes. There will always be a last minute rush to vote, but you can see the convenience of early voting in the states that have done it for a while. The trend is overwhelming.
Stewart: We actually tried ORCA in 2008. We called it Houdini, and we had the same problem. It was quieter, but we actually had the same problem. And we had the exact same phone problem— it clogged the lines. I won’t say exactly what we learned in 2012, but it worked this time and that just speaks to the process of campaigns. We evolve so quickly on campaigns, and you just get smarter each time. Given the number of primary contests we’re going to see [in 2016], there’s going to be lots of evolution between each state.